1. Accepting His Loan of a Shirt Might Have Been an Ethical Violation (Especially Since I Kept the Shirt as a Souvenir)
Pete Carroll, head coach of the foot-ball team at the University of Southern California, turns to me one night around 8 p.m. and says he’s got something to do, somewhere he needs to be. We’re standing outside his office at Heritage Hall, the redbrick headquarters of USC’s athletic program, the trophy-filled heart of Troy.
I ask Carroll where he’s going, what he’s doing. He doesn’t answer. I ask if I can come along. No, he says, absolutely not. I ask again. Sorry, he says. I stare imploringly. OK, he says, looking me up and down—but you’d better change. He rummages through a small wardrobe in the corner of his office and finds a white polo, which he flips to me like a screen pass.
Put this on.
Your shirt, it’s blue—you might get shot.
Where the hell are we going?
He walks quickly out of the office.
2. He Often Wouldn’t Let Me Take Notes, So Some Quotations Are Approximations from Memory
While wriggling into Carroll’s shirt, I hurry to keep pace. It’s not easy. Carroll’s normal gait is what others might call a wind sprint. Down some stairs, around a practice field, through a parking lot, we zoom across campus. He tells me to stow my notebook. It might make the people we’re meeting uncomfortable.
Who are we meeting?
Look for a blue van, Carroll says.
A blue van?
There, he says. Sure enough, a blue van is double-parked at the corner, and beside it stands our driver and escort for the night, a deep-chested, gentle-voiced man named Bo Taylor. I climb into the backseat. Carroll rides shotgun.
Along the way Taylor tells me that he and Carroll do this often. They make late-night journeys through the dicey precincts of Los Angeles. Alone, unarmed, they cruise the desolate, impoverished, crime-ridden streets, meeting as many people (mostly young men) as possible. The mission: Let them know that someone busy, someone famous, someone well known for winning, is thinking about them, rooting for them. The young men have hard stories, grim stories, about their everyday lives, and at the very least Carroll’s visit gives them a different story to tell tomorrow. Carroll says: “Somebody they would never think would come to them and care about them and worry about them—did. I think it gives them hope.”
Few fans of USC, Carroll concedes, know that he spends his nights this way. He’s not sure he wants them to know. He’s not sure he wants anyone to know. I ask what his wife of 31 years, Glena, thinks of these excursions. He doesn’t answer. (Days later Glena tells me with a laugh that she doesn’t worry about Carroll driving around L.A., but she drew the line when he mentioned visiting Baghdad.)
We start in east South-Central, a block without streetlights, without stores. Broken glass in the gutters. Fog and gloom in the air. We hop out and approach a group of young men bunched on the sidewalk. Glassy-eyed, they’re either drunk, stoned, or else just dangerously bored. They recognize Carroll right away. Several look around for news trucks and politicians, and they can’t hide their shock when they realize that Carroll is here, relatively speaking, alone.
Carroll shakes hands, asks how everyone’s doing. He marches up and down the sidewalk, the same way he marches up and down a sideline—exhorting, pumping his fist. At first the young men are nervous, starstruck, shy. Gradually they relax. They talk about football, of course, but also about the police, about how difficult it is to find a job. They talk about their lives, and their heads snap back when Carroll listens.
A car pulls up. Someone’s mother, back from the store. She freezes when she sees who’s outside her house. Carroll waves, then helps her with the groceries. He makes several trips, multiple bags in each hand, and the woman yelps with laughter. No, this can’t be. This is too much. Pete Carroll? Coach of the roughest, toughest, slickest college football team in the nation, schlepping eggs and soda from her car to her kitchen?
Next we drive to the Jordan Downs housing projects, one of the most dangerous places in L.A. We find a craps game raging between the main buildings. Forty young men huddle in the dark, a different sort of huddle from the ones Carroll typically supervises. They are smoking, cursing, shoving, intent on the game, but most fall silent and come to attention as they realize who’s behind them. Pete Carroll, someone whispers. Pete Carroll? The most famous sports figure in the city, excluding Kobe Bryant? (Maybe including Bryant.) Pete Carroll, mentor to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White—here? A sweet-faced teen named Jerome steps away from the game. He stares at Carroll, shakes his head as if to clear it. He says the same thing over and over. Pete Carroll in the ghetto. Man, this is crazy. Pete Carroll—in the ghetto! Crazy.
Some time after midnight Carroll and Taylor head for the van. Time to get back to Heritage Hall, where Carroll will catch a few hours of sleep on his office floor before his assistant coaches start showing up. A young man stops Carroll, takes the coach aside and becomes emotional while explaining how much this visit has meant to him. He gives Carroll a bracelet, something he made, a symbol of brotherhood and solidarity. Carroll accepts the bracelet as if it were a Rolex. He’ll wear it for days, often pushing back his sleeve to admire and play with it. He gives several young men his cell phone number—something he’s never offered me—and tells them to call if they ever need to talk. One, an ex-con, will call early the next morning and confide in Carroll about his struggles feeding his family. Carroll will vow to help find him a job. (So far, Taylor says, Carroll has found part-time jobs for 40 young men.)
Driving back to campus, Taylor is bleary-eyed, I’m half asleep, and Carroll looks as if he could go for a brisk 5K run, then start a big home improvement project. I ask Taylor if people on the streets ever seem suspicious of Carroll. Do they ever think he’s grandstanding or recruiting—or crazy? Taylor says he’s heard almost no cynicism, though he admits that he was doubtful at first. “Pete was like, ‘I want to go through the community with you,’ ” Taylor says. Sure, Taylor told Carroll, assuming it was just talk. Then, late one night, Taylor’s phone rang.
Hey, Bo, what’s up?
Not much. Who’s this?
Pete Carroll. Hey, man, I’m ready, man. When can we go out there?
Taylor was stunned. Not only did Carroll follow through, but there was something in his tone. He was asking to visit neighborhoods where police don’t like to go, and he was asking without fear. “He asked like he wasn’t afraid,” Taylor says. He turns to look at me in the backseat, to make sure I’m sufficiently astonished or to make sure I’m still awake. “He asked that shit like he was not afraid.”
3. His Lack of Fear Scared the Hell out of Me
Carroll gave up fear long ago. He gave it up the way people give up carbs. Fear now has no part in his daily life. Fear is like an old, distant friend. They know each other well, talk once in a while, but they’re not close like they used to be.
In meetings, practices, pre-game talks, fear is Carroll’s theme. “That’s what we’re all about,” he says, lying back on the leather sofa in his office one night. “Our entire approach is to come to the point where we have the knowing that we’re going to win. There’s nothing to stop us but ourselves. To do that is to operate in the absence of fear.”
Carroll teams are 65 and 12 over the last six years. They win 84 percent of the time. They win like the sun rises and the Santa Anas blow. Strictly by the numbers—84 frigging percent—he’s the best football coach in the nation, Division I-A or pro. His players, apparently, operate in a fear vacuum. I, on the other hand, operate in the constant presence of fear, the ubiquity of fear. I’m lightheaded with dread at the prospect of profiling Carroll, because early on I realize it can’t be done, not in any conventional sense. Carroll’s the acme of unconventional, and thus a profile of him needs to be radically different. Knowing this creates pressure, a feeling under the ribs that starts like indigestion and becomes a persistent, nagging fear, which is then compounded by Carroll’s noticeably absent fear. Even when Carroll says or does something inspiring, a frequent occurrence, part of me feels lifted up, but much of me feels cast down. It’s analogous to the way, no matter how fascinating you find them, superrich people can make you feel sad.
Also, a profile is like a football game. Yes, football is used as a metaphor for just about everything—manhood, America, war, sex, the real estate market—but it’s a better-than-average metaphor for writing. (In football, as in writing, your flow is impeded by blocks.) It’s especially useful as a metaphor for writing about another person. Football is all about taking something that’s not yours, wresting it from someone who’d just as soon keep it. In football the coveted thing is the ball; in journalism it’s the subject’s self, his interior life, and in a psychic struggle for that prize, Carroll is nearly unbeatable. He’s too amorphous, too various—too quick. He walks too fast, talks too fast, runs too deep. Fathoms deep.
His longtime friend Michael Murphy, cofounder of the Esalen Institute, e-mails me from Russia when I plead for help with my profile, but his answer only scares me more. He says Carroll is more complicated than I suspected: “When we talk, we sometimes turn to sports, but more often to philosophy and the amazing possibilities of human nature. For awhile we worked together with Russian coaches and athletes and talked about ending the Cold War…. We’ve discussed Indian philosophy, religious mysticism, parapsychology as a scientific discipline, and various social causes. I’ve probably forgotten more topics we’ve explored than the ones I can remember.”
Carroll is an unnerving inverse of the traditional sportswriter’s dilemma—the athlete who says nothing and has nothing to say. Carroll says a lot and has a lot to say. The problem, therefore, isn’t lack of information. The problem isn’t even too much information. The problem is finding the right template, the right format for all that information. You can’t capture a character like Carroll using that dried-up magazine format—The Profile. (The opening scene that shows our Subject in a quirky/revealing light; the writerly riff that makes a claim for the Subject’s relevance; the quotes from friends/family/enemies; the quotes from the Subject himself; the closing scene that shows the Subject in a setting that recalls the opening.) With Carroll, I know from the start, this format won’t work. It won’t feel true. Not even 84 percent true. People will think I never got close to him. People will say: “Damn, didn’t you get any access?”
4. He Gave Me Total Access
I first meet Carroll just before the season starts. His team is ranked number one in the nation. We’re standing on Howard Jones Field, a fenced pasture at the center of the sprawling concrete campus, and I make my pitch. I want to write something distinctive, I tell him. Comprehensive.
Sure, he says, let’s do it. Awesome, he says. (Along with cool and stuff, awesome is one of Carroll’s words. He says awesome so often that I anticipate it, hear it, remember it, whether he actually says it or not. He’s forever decreeing people and things to be awesome, and the word is no boilerplate superlative: He means that this person or thing is filling him to the brim with awe.) He promises me total access, and in the days that follow, he’s good to his word. He waves me into rooms and meetings barred to other reporters. He lets me eat with him and his assistants. He invites me to watch game films, sit in on private speeches to players, accompany him on recruiting visits, travel with the team—live his life. I’m grateful, of course. I’m aware that a heavy curtain is being drawn back. But I also see that the real VIP area, Carroll’s soul, remains behind velvet ropes.
Carroll’s specialty, after all, is defense. He knows better than most people how to keep opponents at bay, even while letting them feel as if they’re advancing. On the field he favors the bend-but-don’t-break style, whereby his teams surrender small nibbles of yardage but never the big bite. I believe that’s how he treats a would-be profiler. Not by design, maybe, but by instinct.
In an unguarded moment Carroll confesses that he made up his mind long ago about journalists. They’re unavoidable, he says. Like injuries and agents, they come with the job, and it’s best to “build relationships” with them. Know your enemy as you know yourself. (Wisdom from Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, one of Carroll’s spiritual pillars.) Journalists might help Carroll or flatter him, but they’re more likely to wound him, something he learned the hard way in Boston, ten years ago, coaching the New England Patriots. Boston writers were brutal, he says. They blamed Carroll for not being his predecessor, Bill Parcells. They blamed him for not being his successor, Bill Belichick. They blamed him for breathing. Holding back a little, therefore, isn’t ungenerous. It’s gamesmanship. It’s ball control.
5. There’s Nothing in My Notebooks
Even when he’s not holding back, Carroll crosses me up by repeating stories and quips to other writers. He’s promiscuously quotable, spreading his wit willy-nilly. He doesn’t understand, or care, that we’re all trying to wring something new out of him. He tells me a great story, never before published, about the time he hit bottom in New England. Unable to sleep, he flipped on the TV and found a movie about Babe Ruth. He watched Bostonians booing Ruth and thought: Those are the same guys who boo me as I come through the tunnel every Sunday, and they’re booing the greatest baseball player of all time! He was able to laugh, to lighten up, to feel a connection with the Bambino, which got him through the hard times. I write it all down. Days later he gives the same story to The Boston Globe.
I can’t count the number of times I hear Carroll being pithy with a reporter, e.g., “I always think something really good is about to happen” or “Sleep is overrated,” then say the same thing to another reporter a day or two later. Worse, when he does say something new, something legitimately juicy, he gives my tape recorder the big eye and says—Off the record. He goes off the record like Lindsay Lohan goes off the wagon. I like him (another reason I can’t profile him, shouldn’t profile him), but I’ll never forgive him for declaring one particularly delicious rant against a fellow coach—an “asshole” and “a fucking asshole”—off the record.
More confounding, Carroll’s conversations and private interactions are note resistant. Looking through my notebooks, I find page after page of fragments, moments, scenes that seemed poignant or telling at the time and now feel thin. He might be too evanescent, too ephemeral. His essential aura might lie outside the ken of shorthand.
For example, Carroll tells me he suffers from attention deficit disorder. “Self-diagnosed,” he says, kidding, but I concur with his joke diagnosis. Besides leaving half his sentences (and meals) unfinished, he’s in constant motion, tapping his foot, jiggling his leg, swaying to music, playing drums on tables and dashboards. He’s also endearingly absentminded. For the longest time he had no e-mail, because he couldn’t remember his password. He misplaces his cell phone charger. He loses his keys, locks himself out of his office. (Twice in one 24-hour span.) Days after our drive around South-Central, we bump into Taylor at a charity event. Carroll tries to introduce us. We both look at him, bewildered. I gently remind Carroll that the three of us just spent six hours together.
But then this. I’m watching him watching film. In one hand he holds a laser pointer, in the other a remote control, which freezes the action, runs the play backward and forward at different speeds. Without taking his eyes from the screen, he casually asks Nick Holt, his defensive coordinator, how things went at the doctor. Holt, sitting to Carroll’s right, grunts that a thing on his skin is precancerous and will need to be removed. Like the players on the screen, Carroll abruptly stops, midmotion. He stares at Holt, unblinking, gauging Holt’s level of concern. He stares until Holt lifts his head from what he’s reading and looks Carroll straight in the eye. “It’s nothing,” Carroll says.
“Yeah,” Holt says, and shoots Carroll a grateful grin.
No earthshaking words. No grand gesture. Just a sudden payment of attention, despite an attention debt, because attention is the thing most needed. Just a focus of his personal laser, as precise as the one in his hand. In my notebook it says:
Doesn’t blink. Doesn’t jiggle leg
In my memory it feels like much more.
6. There’s Nothing on My Tapes
On two separate occasions, though I aim the tape recorder at Carroll’s mouth, I later discover nothing on the tape but sibilant mumbles. I hear his voice, then a rustling, then silence, then garble garble—it’s spooky. The tape recorder is brand-new. It was the most expensive one they had at Radio Shack. It picks up my voice fine. When Carroll speaks, the recording sounds like an articulate man gagged and locked in the trunk of a car.
7. I’m Unable to Describe Carroll’s Appearance Without Sounding Gay
Most football coaches are bald, pear-shaped sourpusses. They look like Southern sheriffs, circa 1954. But Carroll is a Hollywood fever dream, a hybrid of Knute Rockne and a rock star. (Folk rock.) He looks like a man who spends his days in the sun. Not the bad sun, the sun of Marlboro Men and aging soap opera actors, but the good sun, the sun of tennis pros and yachtsmen. He’s not leathery, just burnished. His eyes are bright Caribbean blue, and the browner his skin gets, the bluer his eyes turn. His nose is slightly zigzag. It breaks left, then right, a runner in the open field, and his chin is jutting, prominent, always pointing the way forward.
His hair, however, might be his signature feature. A puffy palette of white, silver, and gray, it reminds you sometimes of Bill Clinton, other times of Dick Van Dyke. Now you see follicular intimations of Richard Gere, now you see flashes of Phil Donahue, now a fleck or two of Jack Kemp. A journalist friend, when I mention that I’m writing a profile of Carroll—before I realized I couldn’t write a profile of Carroll—says the coach has always seemed to him the paragon of kicked-back cool, the Burt Bacharach of coaches. It’s a fine, and fittingly hair-focused, comparison.
He’s taller in person than on TV. Stalking a sideline, he’s always dwarfed by that phalanx of giants in his private Praetorian Guard, but walking the campus he’s taller than most students he passes. He’s also in better shape. He dresses in concealing layers—a blousy polo shirt over a white body shirt, khaki pants—but when he changes in his office, when he’s standing there shirtless, you notice the definition. A USC strength coach says Carroll is a workout fiend, always looking for new ways to get the heart rate up and the body fat down. He lifts weights, boogie-boards under the pier at Hermosa Beach, and after an exhausting morning of meetings and interviews and speeches, he likes nothing better than to run the floor hard with a pickup basketball team. A doctor told him long ago that his knees are bad, bone-on-bone bad, and he should never play basketball again. He doesn’t go to that doctor anymore.
Every year on Carroll’s birthday he vows to throw a football as far as he is old. When he turned 56 in September, he made a point of going out to the field in the morning and chucking the rock 56 yards. He takes visible pride, disarming pride, in telling me that his ball landed with several yards to spare. There is the trace of a smile on his lips as he tells me. There is always the trace of a smile on Carroll’s lips. His effectiveness as a motivator begins and ends with that smile, which is sincere, unrestrained, and wide, though he mixes in half smiles and smirks when being sarcastic. More than the smile, it’s specifically the prospect of a smile that seems to fuel the many people orbiting Carroll all day. They are prepared to go to great lengths, endure significant pain and inconvenience, to earn one of those Carroll high-beamers, and they brighten visibly upon receipt. They become flustered. They turn the colors of a Pacific sunset. They titter.
Many TV and movie stars hang around Carroll. (On his desk is a Jack Bauer action figure given to him by Kiefer Sutherland for his birthday, and he sometimes plays with it while talking to visitors.) One star, however, is known to giggle uncontrollably around Carroll, according to eyewitnesses. The eyewitnesses don’t blame the star, really. Carroll’s smile just has that effect.
More than charismatic, more than charming, Carroll’s smile represents a break from tradition. Football coaches aren’t supposed to smile. There’s no crying in baseball? There’s no smiling in coaching. Football coaches are supposed to snarl and growl and look chronically constipated. Football coaches are supposed to make Dick Cheney look like Mr. Haney. Football coaches aren’t supposed to flash you a smile that makes you go all goosey and forget your dignity. Or your next question.
8. He Wore Me Down
These are some of the things Carroll doesn’t do:
That is, I haven’t seen him do any of these things, not the way most people do them, with regularity. I, however, do all these things, sometimes at the same time, and following Carroll around, therefore, doing everything he does, not doing anything he doesn’t do, I’m always hungry, tired, thirsty, and need to find a men’s room. He pushes me to the limits of my endurance, until I’m barely able to function.
After we’ve spent the night cruising South-Central, after Carroll has catnapped on the floor of his office, I expect to find him exhausted the next morning. I want to find him exhausted. Instead he looks as if he’s slept ten hours, eaten a heart-healthy breakfast, then enjoyed a 90-minute deep-tissue massage.
It’s emotionally as well as physically demoralizing. Under the best of circumstances, emasculation is a major concern when hanging around the USC football team. Heritage Hall is a hypermasculine, phallocentric environment, and with your little notebook, and your nettling questions, and your trick knee, you can’t help but feel like Woody Allen’s kid brother. It doesn’t help that, while interviewing the defensive star, you hold the tape recorder above your head and wish there were a step stool handy. But when the head coach outworks you, outlasts you, when the head coach grinds you into a fine dust, you feel like Dakota Fanning.
If I shut my eyes and try to picture my time with Carroll, one scene comes quickly to mind. It’s late. He’s pacing outside his office, glancing at a game on TV, tossing a football to himself, talking to me and several assistant coaches all at once. Suddenly and unaccountably he leans against a leather chair and starts doing push-ups. Slumped in a chair, eyelids heavy, I can’t help wondering if he might secretly be using crystal meth.
Carroll’s wife says that when he does sleep, he sometimes shoots awake in the middle of the night, seized by inspiration. A new play, a new solution to some Xs and Os problem. Carroll likens his mental state to the movie Phenomenon. He says he feels something like that John Travolta character, whose mind is racing with ideas and flashes of insight. I remind Carroll that at the end of the movie, doctors discover that Travolta’s character has a tumor. Carroll says something to the effect that I’m carrying the metaphor too far.
While watching Carroll in practice one day, I’m vaguely thinking I need to start taking vitamins more regularly. He’s smiling, throwing the football, chewing a wad of gum, inspiring everyone, pumping everyone up. He’s 14 years older than I am. His job is harder than mine. His hours are longer. His path is strewn with greater hurdles—Cal and Oregon, to name two. But here he is, on the balls of his feet, running and jumping, leaping through the air while happily blowing his whistle. Baryshnikov as a Baywatch lifeguard.
I think: Maybe if I had a whistle.
9. I Applied Carroll’s Coaching Methods to myself—No Luck
When he’s not helping them conquer their fear, Carroll is preaching to his players about fun. He urges them, if they do nothing else, to have fun, because fun is a natural antidote to fear and a prime motive for most of the things we do.
People who know him best invariably seize upon fun to describe Carroll, either saying it’s fun to be around him or that he’s forever having fun. His emphasis on fun comes mainly from his DNA but also from his reading, specifically W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, a 122-page book with a cultlike following. (The latest edition features a foreword by Carroll.) Using tennis as a prism through which to view all human endeavor, Gallwey says we focus too narrowly on results. “The three cornerstones of Inner Game,” he tells me, “are Performance, Learning, and Enjoyment. Usually people put Performance first, and Learning and Enjoyment are almost absent.”
If we focused more on Enjoyment and Learning, Gallwey says, we’d perform better and we’d be a lot happier: “You look at a child. He learns while he plays. Anything he tries to do, or win at, he’s playing, he has a wonderful time doing it. They’re not separate things for a child. That means to me these things are inherently built into human beings. Most human beings, you have to coach what’s already inherent—that is, the drive of excitement to learn and keep learning, and the drive to enjoy. It gets really covered up when winning is everything. I agree with Lombardi: Winning is everything. It’s just what your definition of winning is.”
Defensive end Lawrence Jackson, cocaptain of the team, says he struggled last year, recovering from an injury, fighting to play his way back into shape, until Carroll gave him a copy of Gallwey’s book. Jackson’s game, and his life, changed. “He was telling me to settle down and kind of get back to having fun,” Jackson says of Carroll. “Who knew that it was going to come down to 120 pages of a book?”
I study The Inner Game of Tennis. I try to have fun with my Carroll profile. But I’m caught in a trap. The more I learn about Carroll, the more there is to learn. The more time I spend with Carroll, the greater the pressure. As pressure increases, enjoyment decreases. As enjoyment decreases, performance plummets.
Sensing my rising tension, Carroll can hardly conceal his pity or his amusement. He asks what my plans are for the week. I tell him I’ll be reading about him, thinking about him, trying to figure out how to synthesize all I’ve seen, heard, and read. He smiles and says something that, unless I’m hearing things, sounds like “Poor guy.”
10. He’s Not Finished
Carroll dislikes “goals.” He doesn’t use the word, makes a face when I use it. So let’s say he’s undertaken two enormous tasks, and he can’t be judged fairly—or profiled—until he succeeds, fails, or quits.
His first task: Turn USC into the grandest college dynasty ever. Not this week’s number one team but history’s. “To win forever,” he says, and before this year he looked to be well on his way. He’d won back-to-back national championships and come within 19 seconds of another. (He still goes over critical decisions in that 2005 championship game against Texas, when the Trojans had the lead late but couldn’t bottle up mighty Vince Young.) He put together a 2007 team that was fast on defense, loaded on offense, the heavy favorite to win the third championship of the Carroll Era.
Then came week five and a series of disturbing setbacks.
There was the inexplicable collapse against Stanford, the most improbable loss by an “overdog” in college football history, according to oddsmakers. There was the flare-up of an old scandal surrounding Bush, the virtuoso former tailback, who stands accused of taking $280,000 in improper payments while a student athlete. (Should Bush be found guilty, the NCAA could levy hefty fines against USC.) There was a rash of injuries on offense, decimating a corps that was supposed to dominate and sidelining John David Booty, the starting quarterback, who cracked a finger on his throwing hand. Suddenly, people were questioning the invincibility of USC and its coach.
Carroll’s second task, however, is even more lofty and less likely to be finished soon. Having achieved job security for the first time in his life, he’s expanded his work to include the city beyond USC. Some want to save the world—Carroll wants to coach it. He’s launched a foundation, A Better LA, aimed at motivating on a large scale, at ending violence in the inner city, and he now takes time each week to think and talk about problems other than what to call on third and long. With any coach who’s still coaching, drawing conclusions can be hard. His legacy is always in flux; it hinges on what happens next Saturday. But when a coach is remaking himself into a social activist, when he’s just beginning the task for which he may one day be best remembered, firm statements feel that much more ridiculously premature.
11. A Profile Will Be Better in Five or Six Years When This Kid Is Actually Playing for USC
On a recruiting swing through the city, Carroll drops in at a private high school. He asks to see a faculty member, a woman whose son is a touted prospect. The mother emerges from her office and frowns. She recognizes Carroll immediately and knows why he’s here. She brusquely explains that all the men in her family played for USC’s hated rival, Notre Dame, and that’s where her boy is almost certainly going. Carroll says he knows all about the boy’s Notre Dame pedigree. He’s been well briefed. But he came anyway, he tells the mother sheepishly, because he likes a challenge. He smiles. The mother scowls.
Carroll is a master at recruiting. His life is predicated on competition, and he particularly enjoys competing for people, kids, prospects, which is how dynasties are made. (College football geeks have ranked Carroll’s last five recruiting classes among the best in the nation.) Sometimes, when talking to a recruit and his parents, Carroll can barely contain his enthusiasm. “I know what I’m offering,” he tells me. “They can’t even conceive. They don’t—they can’t possibly understand how special—.”
Booty remembers his first recruiting visit to USC. Carroll won him over in seconds. “Acted like he’d known me my whole life,” Booty says. “Just coming up, giving me a high five, hugging my parents. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had meeting a college coach. I’ve met just about every coach—hands down, he was the best.”
Before leaving campus Booty knocked at Carroll’s door and told him he’d decided to play for USC. “I didn’t even go home to think about it. I told my dad, ‘This is where I want to be.’ ”
Carroll tries everything, but the mother refuses to warm up. It’s not just that Carroll coaches the Enemy; the mother clearly doesn’t like the idea of her son leaving home, ever. She cringes at the thought of handing him over to any coach, no matter the school. He’s 14, she tells Carroll, pleading. He’s a baby, she says. Carroll tries to reassure her. In the soothing voice of a suicide hotline operator, he says that he realizes her boy’s young and college is years off. He simply wanted to introduce himself. No big deal, no pressure. But when the time comes to choose a school, he adds, he hopes she’ll at least consider USC. Come to the campus for a visit.
The mother nods, thanks Carroll, then walks him—no, escorts him—to the front door. As Carroll crosses the street, the mother yells: Good luck with the season! Hope you have at least one loss!
Carroll turns to me.
What’d she say? Hope you have green moss?
Hope you have one loss.
He squints. Still doesn’t get it.
In other words, she hopes you lose to Notre Dame.
Really? That’s what she said?
We climb back in the car. Ken Norton Jr., Carroll’s linebacker coach, drives to the next school. Carroll turns up the radio. Humming along to an R&B song, he stares out the window, lost in thought. All at once he brightens. Hey, he says. At least she wants us to win 12 games! That’s what she’s saying, right? She hopes we win 12 games. That ain’t so bad!
12. The Three Rules Don’t Add Up
Shortly before arriving at USC, Carroll sat down and drew up three rules, three basic imperatives that are central to his view of coaching. The three rules are among the first things a freshman learns when he steps on the USC practice field. The three rules must be memorized, internalized, or the player is out. The three rules are:
1. Protect the team.
2. No whining. No complaining. No excuses.
3. Be early.
No matter how many times I add them up, the three rules look to me like five rules. I feel like a malcontent, a contrarian, for raising the point, for even noticing, but I can’t help it.
Also, something inside me rebels against Rule No. 2. (No. 4, by my reckoning). Something inside me bridles at any blanket prohibition of excuses, for reasons that by now should be obvious.
13. No Matter What I Write, It Will Be Wrong
I could write that Carroll failed as a head coach in the National Football League, that he didn’t hit his stride, didn’t find himself, until he returned to college ball. It’s the most common knock against him, and his NFL record (33-31) was less than dazzling. But I could just as easily write that Carroll deserved more time, that he was done in by idiot fans and trigger-happy NFL owners who didn’t recognize his strengths. Given more time, Carroll would have become one of the best. “He never really had a chance to establish himself,” says Boomer Esiason, who quarterbacked for the New York Jets when Carroll was the coach. Esiason calls the day Carroll got fired “the saddest day of my professional life. I basically went from a Ph.D. to an elementary school education in about 15 minutes.”
I could write that Carroll was too soft on his players in the NFL—it might be the worst charge that could be leveled at a football coach. It’s been leveled at Carroll plenty, and he winces when he repeats it. But I could just as easily write that Carroll’s positive attitude, his native optimism and idealism, find more receptive ears among young players, who haven’t yet become cynical, who don’t play for money.
I could write that Carroll’s restoration of USC’s glory, his resurrection of a prowess and cachet that date back to the 1920s, is one of the most impressive achievements in the annals of college football, so fast and dramatic that it borders on miraculous. Carroll took a team that had become a nonfactor, that hadn’t won a national championship in 22 years, and turned it into a machine. His stars made a habit of collecting Heismans as if it were their birthright—three winners in four years, a feat no other school has achieved. No one would have dared say I was wrong—until this season. When USC fell to Stanford, you could hear the critics clearing their throats, rehearsing their revisionist histories and eulogies of the Carroll Era. Maybe the magic is gone, they said. Maybe Carroll benefited from a crew of talented assistants, they said, guys like offensive mastermind Norm Chow, who left to become offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, and Lane Kiffin, who left to become head coach of the Oakland Raiders, and Ed Orgeron, who’s now coaching the University of Mississippi.
Just wait. Another few losses, another season or two without a championship, and the critics will get louder. Carroll was overrated, they’ll say. He got lucky, they’ll say. He came along at the same moment as a rare cluster of once-in-a-lifetime players, they’ll say. He’s lost his Trojan mojo.
Carroll knows what they’ll say, and when he hears it, when he feels that he’s losing the players, losing the fans, losing momentum, or just losing, he might leave. Regardless of the contract extension he signed in 2005, details of which he declines to discuss, he’s not likely to stay where he’s not wanted, or where his message is no longer working. “I never want to coach again when it’s not like this,” he says. “I won’t hang on for dear life. I love winning so much that I can’t imagine being here when it’s any other way.”
I could write that, even if he does leave, he’ll never go back to the NFL, where he was booed and labeled a failure. “There’s no way,” he says, and Esiason agrees. “I don’t know if there’s nirvana for Pete Carroll—but I know it’s not in the pros.” And yet. When I press Carroll, I can’t help feeling that he hedges. “There’s no franchise, there’s no ownership, there’s no philosophy,” he says. “The only thing it would give me would be credibility. That you’re the best in the world.”
14. I Still Don’t Know How to Casually and Smoothly Insert the Obligatory Bio Material, Which Is Why I’ve Waited This Long
He was born in San Francisco, September 15, 1951, and grew up in nearby Marin County. A boisterous, happy household, by several accounts. His father was a liquor wholesaler, his mother “the life of the party,” Carroll recalls. Dad was “competitive,” Mom was “loving, really kind.” His mother died in 2000, his father in 2001.
He takes after them in equal measure, he says, though at least one friend disagrees. “His mom was really his heart,” says Dave Perron, a buddy who played college ball with Carroll. “She just lavished so much love and affection on him that made him feel confident about himself.” His father wore the gear, the sweatshirts and hats of every team Carroll ever coached. “Because I got fired and kicked around so much,” Carroll says, “he had about eight closets full of stuff.” Still, Perron insists, “his core, his soul, comes from his mother.”
Carroll attended Redwood High School, where he played three sports. He continued playing football through college, first at the College of Marin, then the University of the Pacific, where he transferred in his junior year. He starred at free safety.
After graduating with a degree in business administration, he went out for the World Football League, but an injured shoulder kept him from making the team. “They might not say it was the shoulder,” he confesses. He briefly tried his hand at selling roofing materials. He was miserable. When he got wind of a job opening on the coaching staff at his alma mater, he pounced on it. The pay was nothing, but he didn’t care. While studying for his master’s in sports psychology, Carroll worked as a graduate assistant with the team, coaching the school’s receivers and pass defenders. At 25 he married Glena, a fellow jock. (Volleyball.) She was one of the first female athletes to earn an athletic scholarship from the University of the Pacific. They have two sons and a daughter.
In 1977, Carroll signed on as a graduate assistant at the University of Arkansas, under Lou Holtz. He soon advanced to the level of assistant coach, first at Iowa State, then Ohio State. In 1980, he caught on as defensive coordinator at North Carolina State. Three years later he returned to Pacific as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.
Carroll broke into the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, in 1984, coaching the defensive backs. From Buffalo he moved to Minnesota, coaching backs for Bud Grant’s Vikings. In 1990, he jumped to the New York Jets, as defensive coordinator, and in 1994, when he was 43, he became the team’s head coach. He was young for such a big-time job, and the word wunderkind got hung on him, sometimes flatteringly, sometimes sarcastically.
The wunderkind went 6-10 his first year and got fired. Carroll recalls sitting across from team owner Leon Hess. It felt, Carroll says, as though he were “staring into the eyes of Satan.” He spent the next two years with his hometown 49ers, building a ferocious defense. The playbook was a mess, a mélange of schemes and ideas that went back years, he says. No one could tell where anything had come from, who was the originator of what—like a polygamist’s family album. His ability to unravel, decipher, and streamline the book won him praise from many in the organization, including Bill Walsh, his shining hero. (Months after Walsh’s death, Carroll keeps a Walsh voice mail in his cell phone and listens to it every time he clicks through his saved messages.)
In 1997, Carroll landed the job of head coach in New England. His first year was his best. The Patriots won ten games and captured the AFC East crown. His next two years saw a slight but steady drop-off. Owner Robert Kraft said publicly that firing Carroll was a tough call, but David Halberstam, in his best-selling book The Education of a Coach, says Kraft had grown enamored of Belichick and was eager to shed Carroll.
Most often Carroll sloughs off past failures. Now and then, however, his voice darkens and his tone betrays the residual pain. Over takeout one night—I devour mine, he picks at his like a supermodel—Carroll says his time in Boston inoculated him against criticism. “I’ve already been dead,” he says. “You can’t kill a dead man.”
It was late 2000, just when he felt he’d recovered from the trauma of New York and New England, that USC fired its coach. The school had been to only one Rose Bowl in ten years. Fans were clamoring for a recognizable name with a sparkling résumé. Carroll knew he was a long shot. School officials had a list of three or four candidates, and he wasn’t on it. But to everyone’s surprise, Carroll aced his on-campus interview with USC athletic director Mike Garrett. Overnight he was the front-runner.
After weeks of drama and intense public speculation, Garrett introduced Carroll as the new coach shortly before Christmas. The announcement was wildly unpopular with alumni, writers, and fans. “I’m not mad at Pete Carroll,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. “I’m mad at USC for hiring him.”
A shaky start seemed to validate the anti-Carroll voices. His first season opened with a big wet thud—two wins, five losses. Although Carroll believed this was his last chance at coaching, he didn’t panic. As always, he expected something good to happen, and it did. The players began to mesh. The three rules took root. From 2001 until the present, USC has been the nation’s dominant team. At one point the Trojans owned a streak of 34 straight victories, spread over three seasons. But it was also the way they won. The 2004 muscling of Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The 2005 systematic demolition of Oklahoma. The 2005 “Bush Push” thriller against Notre Dame.
Carroll takes particular pleasure in the change at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. For those first few months of his tenure, the stadium was half full. Now every home game brings 92,000 dressed in cardinal and gold, the kind of hard-core fans who make “Tribute to Troy” the ring tone on their cell phones, who know what Palmam qui meruit ferat means, who proudly wear pins that read in pete we trust.
15. He Doesn’t Speak English
He speaks in Joycean sentences composed of Xs and Os and arrows. He draws up elaborate problems—on dry-erase boards, in a code of symbols and squiggles that might as well be ancient Sumerian—solves them, reconstructs them, then erases them, and starts again. He turns to his assistant coaches one night, all of them sitting in high-backed leather chairs, eating homemade cookies and milk. “How can it be this easy?” he says, drawing up another play to stymie the next opponent. They dunk their cookies, laugh. Thousands of these problems take up the neurons of Carroll’s brain. (There are more than 900 plays in USC’s playbook alone.) The names of the plays convey their esoteric quality, names like “Mash Two Trips Right 99 Y- Stick X-Snap” and “Trips Right Z-Short 12 Track F-Seal.” You can’t profile someone unless you speak his language, and you can’t hope to profile Carroll unless you know the difference between Amigo Burst and Zombie Right, or the relationship between the Mike, the Will, and the Sam, or the glorious history of the Seven Diamond, or why Carroll and his assistants sometimes spontaneously and simultaneously cry out “Tokyo!” And you can’t understand such things without years of study.
One afternoon I watch Carroll enjoy a private eureka moment with his assistant Rocky Seto. While analyzing data on their next opponent, they realize that the defense has a tendency to react the same way every time it’s faced with one situation. Leaping to the dry-erase board, Seto points to a series of numbers and says, “They run all their spiders from the right hash!”
You don’t say.
On another occasion Carroll lets me sit in a corner as his offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, briefs players about the next defense they face. Everything Sarkisian says is Top Secret, but Carroll knows I might as well sit in on a U.N. Security Council session without headphones that provide translation. I lose the thread—and, briefly, consciousness—somewhere in the middle of the following Sarkisian speech: “I want to make sure we’re clear when we’re running seal zone plays and when we’re running our regular zones, when we’re making slow calls, when we’re running power, and when we’re blocking with Ds and Cs, and when we’re making slappy calls. Big in this game, on first and second downs, guys, is our play action passing, whether it’s off the bootleg pass, 13, 12 boot, A 42, A 43, our Nakeds, Rose and Lee, and A 26, and A 27…80, 90….”
16. I Can’t Conceive Any Explanation for Why This Beautiful Carroll-Orchestrated Moment Wasn’t National News, Which Makes Me Question All My Judgments About Carroll
The first quarter of the first game of 2007. Carroll’s team is preoccupied, heavyhearted, mourning their beloved placekicker, Mario Danelo, who died in January after falling from a cliff in San Pedro. (Danelo was drunk, but police still don’t know why he fell.) The players have honored Danelo with an emotional pregame ceremony and with a moment of silence before kickoff, but it’s not enough. After USC scores its first touchdown, Carroll sends just ten men onto the field to kick the point after. One man is missing—Danelo.
Slowly the crowd realizes what’s happening. They see the holder kneeling in an empty backfield—a sort of missing man formation. Murmurs ripple through the crowd, then a cheer goes up. It grows louder. The play clock runs down, the refs whistle the play dead. USC is penalized for delay of game. The ball is moved back five yards. At last Danelo’s replacement trots onto the field and boots the ball through the uprights. The symbolic gesture, which perhaps has given some extra comfort to Danelo’s family, sends chills around the Coliseum and further cements the bond between coach and players.
17. I Can’t Explain the American Fascination with Football Coaches, a Prerequisite for Putting Carroll in His proper Historical and Cultural Context
Americans have always felt a deep reverence for their Lombardis and Halases, their Landrys and Bryants, their Rocknes and Strams. The American love of coaches goes back 110 years, and it says something about who we are and where we stand as a culture, the way we lap up gossip about them, chart their up-and-down careers, YouTube their tantrums. We thrill to watch them throw clipboards, pound lecterns, grab face masks, berate writers—so long as they win. Hell, we love them even if they don’t win, so long as they’re good and crazy. When Mike Gundy, head coach of Oklahoma State, suffered a public nervous breakdown in September, when he spent his weekly press conference bullying a female columnist for something fairly innocent, I expected him to be hospitalized. Instead he was lionized. Writers and fans praised Gundy for “backing” his players. Recruitment at Oklahoma State spiked. Parents wanted to pack up their sons and send them to live with this lunatic.
Maybe we love coaches because deep down we long to be coached. Whatever we do, we’d like to do it better, and we go weak at the knees for the man of passion who vows to kick our ass until we do our best. Even some of our cultural icons are actually coaches in disguise. What is Oprah but a coach to tens of millions of women?
Or maybe some deep, virulent strain of cultural bellicosity underlies our football coach fetish. We’re a warlike nation, on a war footing, and if football is our weekend simulacrum of war, football coaches are our stand-ins for four-star generals—and God knows we swoon over generals. (More than one in four U.S. presidents was a former general.) Given our atavistic fondness for field marshals and chieftains, it’s a wonder more coaches don’t run for high office. Then again, why would they voluntarily submit to such a drastic cut in pay and a still sharper decrease in power?
Carroll believes he knows why we love coaches, why the epic coaches have become American icons. “They were themselves,” he says. Great coaches, he says excitedly, know themselves. What about coaches who fail? “They don’t know themselves,” he says. “So they act in accordance with what they think they should be acting like, as opposed to finding out who they are so they can act directly in connection with the essence of who they are.”
18. Carroll Might Be God, or Thor, and Everyone Knows That Neither God nor Thor Can Be Profiled
While coaching the Jets, Carroll got his hands on some strange reading material, stuff that was really “out there,” he says. He was seeking the philosophers’ stone, the idea or set of ideas that would help him reach players and also find meaning in his life. He befriended a blind woman, a “futurist,” who read crystals in her spare time and experienced strong visions whenever Carroll was near. “We had kind of a cool friendship. I was learning about Native American stuff.”
Carroll stumbled on a concept called “Long Body,” a way the Iroquois thought of the tribe. One feels pain, all feel pain. One triumphs, all triumph. Long Body. He began applying this idea to football. “Things were occurring,” he says. “I didn’t know—I had a meeting with players and coaches, and I was telling them about this Iroquois concept. Connection of the tribe. They live together, they hunt together. They become one. So I’m telling them about this concept—this is really far out—and I say, ‘As we go through this camp, go through this season, we’re going to get so close, we’re going to connect in this true fashion. Long Body. It’s going to take us to places we’ve never been before.’ And at the end of my talk I say, ‘As we get through it, I’ll explain it more to you, and I know this to be true so much right now that thunder will strike—’ ”
At that moment, Carroll says, he struck a table with his fist and a clap of thunder shook the building.
His coaches, he says, turned white.
I turn a little pale myself.
“At bed check,” he says, laughing, “I found guys curled up, reading their Bibles.”
As with many gods, and most holy men, Carroll endured the archetypal Time of Suffering, followed by the mandatory Period of Exile, then the classic Journey Through the Wilderness, culminating with the all-changing Epiphany. It happened this way. After being fired by New England, Carroll retreated to his office in Massachusetts, to read and reflect. He thought his coaching career might be over. That is, he did and he didn’t. He still believed, deep down, something good was about to happen. He still believed he was a winner who simply hadn’t won yet. John Wooden told him so. Carroll read one of the UCLA basketball coach’s books and learned that the man who won ten national championships in 12 years didn’t win any in the first 16 years of his career. His dry spell gave Carroll comfort.
During his exile, Carroll also tried his hand at a column for the NFL’s Web site. Something about the discipline of writing every day made him look inward, a thousand miles inward. A logjam loosened; the universe got clearer. Eventually it all came pouring out, his principles, his beliefs. He wrote and wrote, page after page, caught in the grip of inspiration. He laid out the Carroll Doctrine, a battle plan, a battle cry, a manifesto, stressing the value of Fun, Competition, and Practice in helping athletes “self-actualize.” In other words, know themselves. An athlete who knows himself, Carroll says, is unstoppable. The Soul is the Zone that every athlete must strive to enter. Before a big game, Carroll is likely to remind his players to be themselves. “Be who we are. Don’t make shit up, ever!” He says this to his men before their game against Nebraska, a street fight in which they put 49 points on a stunned Husker team that thought it had improved.
I ask Carroll if I can read this manifesto. Carroll says he has no idea where it is. He might not have written it, per se.
It might have been a dream, he says. What matters is that he woke one day and knew himself. He had himself down cold. He was ready to go forth. He was ready to win.
19. To Write a Profile That’s accurate, I’d Be Obligated to Describe a Bizarre and Humiliating Contest of Wills Between the Coach and Me
Carroll is part camel. It’s the only explanation. After a morning of meetings, followed by a speech to a booster group, we return to campus. It’s unseasonably warm. I fantasize about a dozen glasses of cool water lined up before me. Looking at my watch, I calculate 18 hours since he’s ingested any type of liquid. I couldn’t be more parched if I were trailing around after T.E. Lawrence. I mention my ravenous, desperate thirst to Carroll. He sighs, guides me to a minifridge in the assistant coaches’ locker room, grabs me a cold Gatorade. My mouth waters as I start to unscrew the cap.
Aren’t you going to have one? I ask.
Well, I say, I’m not having one until you do. I set down the Gatorade.
He warns me not to make it a competition. If I make it a competition, he’ll die before he takes another drink. (Later he explains it this way: “What I am is a competitor. That’s what I am. My whole life, everything I can ever remember, I’ve been competitive—competitive for friendships, competitive for love, competitive for sports, competitive for heroship, competitive for everything and battling for everything. When I throw my gum away, I’m trying to land it on the line.”) Clearly I don’t want to get into a thirst-off with this man. Nothing good can come of that. I take a sip of Gatorade. The cool orange flavor runs down the back of my throat, and I almost weep with pleasure.
That night I get a text message. I don’t recognize the number. But it doesn’t take long to figure out who it’s from.
still haven’t had anything to drink.
20. I Couldn’t Figure Out How to Work This Image into the top of a Profile, So I Could Return to It Later, Establishing It as an Evocative Symbol of Carroll’s Ethos
He loves music. The computer in his office is always playing something, usually his favorite radio station, KFOG, in San Francisco. He lives from song to song—John Legend, Stevie Wonder, the Grateful Dead—so it’s perfect that Heritage Hall sits 20 feet from USC’s music school. Whenever Carroll walks to or from practice he passes through a wall of music.
Not music, actually, but scales, exercises. Students sit outside at all hours, rehearsing on their cellos and oboes and French horns. They unwittingly provide a sense of perpetual overture and underscore a central tenet of Carroll’s coaching—practice, practice, practice.
“One thing I’ve learned, which I was taught a long time ago but didn’t grasp at the time, is the power of practice,” Carroll says. “The discipline that comes from practice, that allows you to transcend the early stages of learning and take you to a point where you’re free-floating and totally improvising. Through the discipline, the repetition, you become free.”
21. He Already Has His Own Personal Boswell Profiling Him Minute-to-Minute
Ben Malcolmson, a 22-year-old former player, sits at a tiny Bob Cratchit desk outside Carroll’s office, ready to drop everything and follow Carroll to the next talk, practice, team meeting. Malcolmson takes careful note of everything Carroll says, then blogs it instantly, with photos, on his popular Web site, uscripsit.com, which he launched earlier this year with Carroll’s help. Thousands of people visit the site every day.
It’s an experiment few coaches would be open enough to permit, and it’s a life-changing adventure for Malcolmson, who might be the most ardent Carroll fan of them all. “I’ve learned a lot from him about eliminating all negatives,” Malcolmson says. “That’s something that’s going to stick with me the rest of my life.”
Malcolmson recalls last season, when USC lost to Oregon State, the team’s first regular season loss in three years. No one knew what to do, what to feel. Everyone looked to Carroll to tell them, to guide them through the pain: “I was thinking—I can’t wait to get [there] Monday, to know how to feel.”
22. At Some Point, I Lost the Capacity for Cynicism
Carroll is standing in Salon E at the Omaha Marriott, the night before the Nebraska game, when he spots 14-year-old Ryan Davidson. (A USC alum introduced them four years ago.) Carroll hugs Ryan, asks how he’s feeling, then invites him to sit up front with the offensive linemen while Carroll addresses the team.
Davidson looks painfully small, wedged between linemen who outweigh him by 200 pounds. But they all pat him on the back, talk with him, go out of their way to make him feel welcome. He beams. He radiates joy.
This is precisely why Ryan’s father, Kirby, brought the boy here, all the way from their home in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Ryan is due to have surgery in four days, Kirby says. Doctors will remove two new tumors on his brain, a third recurrence of the brain cancer first diagnosed when he was six. “We found out two months ago it had come back,” Kirby says.
Carroll bounds to the front of the room. Before talking about tomorrow’s game, before giving the team its last-minute instructions, he asks them to welcome their honored guest. The players give Ryan a thunderous ovation, which can be heard down the hall and out in the lobby.
At the game, Ryan and Kirby are Carroll’s guests on the USC sideline. They watch alongside Will Ferrell and Keanu Reeves. During the postgame press conference, they try to stay out of the way, but again Carroll spots Ryan.
Hey, Carroll says. Come up here, Ryan. I need you up here with me.
While answering questions, Carroll wraps an arm around Ryan. “He was up there with Coach a good ten minutes,” Kirby says later. “Anybody I’ve shown that videotape to—you can just tell the feeling Coach Carroll has for Ryan. He held on to him really tight and never let go.”
23. My Reaction to the Stanford Defeat May Disqualify Me as an Objective Observer, Even More Than My Acceptance of a Free Shirt
Seated next to me at the black-tie event is a USC student. He takes a call on his cell phone, then closes it and turns to me. USC lost, he says.
No, I say. Impossible.
My friend just called me, the young man insists. Final score—Stanford 24, USC 23.
We both stare at the floor. The first home loss in 35 games? To a 41-point underdog?
I’m surprised by how the news affects me.
The next day I watch clips of Carroll’s press conference. He calls the loss “crushing.” I blanch. That’s not the Carroll I know. That’s not a word I’ve ever heard him use. If Carroll is crushed, I’m further than ever from understanding him. More important, if Carroll is crushed, we’re all in trouble. If Carroll is crushed, if his ideas about Fun, Competition, and Practice can be swept away by one loss, what chance do the rest of us have to connect with our inner Carroll, to coach ourselves, to inspire ourselves, to go forth and win?
I drop by Heritage Hall weeks later. Middle of the night. I find Carroll huddled in the war room, watching film with his assistants. He gives me a big smile and seems to be in better spirits. His players are getting healthy, and they’ve just delivered a mega-statement in South Bend, skunking Notre Dame, 38-0, for the first time since 1933.
He takes me into his office, asks me how the profile’s coming. I tell him that I decided I couldn’t write a profile of him, so I wrote about all the reasons why I couldn’t. He laughs—as if he’s won something. Which makes me laugh.
He asks when we saw each other last. Before Stanford, I remind him. His face changes. No more laughter. No more smile. Stanford. Not even the trace of a smile. Stanford. He starts replaying the game for me, describing the interceptions, the fatal miscues, the wrongheaded decisions. Stanford. He reaches for a black baseball bat and tests its weight, swings it hard at a phantom fastball as he recounts the final harrowing plays. The fourth-down conversion. The stomach-churning touchdown.
I was so pissed off, he says. I’m still pissed off. I’ll always be pissed off.
Well—he smiles. I want to feel pissed off. I harvest that pissed-off feeling.
He talks excitedly about the next opponents, the remaining schedule. The smile grows. The bat slices quicker through the air. He lists the things that are about to start falling into place, the good things that are about to happen. I lean back. I listen. I smile.
I don’t know if I believe. But, hard as I try, I can’t think of a single reason not to.
Photograph by Mark Hanauer